After a taste of small-town Argentina, we felt we needed to check out some more of that relaxed pace. Enter Barreal, where the elevation (1650m) exceeds the population. Nestled in the scenic Valle de Calingasta, smack between the rumpled, multi-hued geological oddities known as the precordillera (think of them as the weirdo cousins to the foothills of the Rockies) and a stretch of the Andes known as the Cordillera de Ansilta including Cerro Mercedario, second only to Aconcagua at 6770m.
The setting was divine with weeping willows pouring over the empty dirt roads. Finding a home at Don Lisandro Hospedaje, we were treated to amazing homecooked vegetarian food (and no pasta either!) and a tranquil yard to relax and take in the views.
Barreal is known for having some of the best sky in the world for star-gazing, and at Observatorio El Leoncito we could see why. Cloudless, perfect skies in all directions. We were able to sample some of that night sky for ourselves when we walked into the precordillera one night with a blanket and thermos of wine (the best we've had, actually - Callia Alta Syrah Bonardo). The southern skies put on a show, with La Cruce de Sur, Las Tres Marias (aka Orion's belt) and a few shooting stars lighting up the clear skies. (There is a pretty good chance we saw a puma as well, when some car lights shown across the road below a very large cat passed into the light, not 50m away. Thinking there were no pumas in this desert-like area we said, "wow! that´s a big cat!" Not until the rangers at El Leoncito handed us warning flyers and stickers the next day did we realize the area is packed with them.)
Just outside of town was La Pampa El Leoncito, a completely dry former lake bed that stretches for 12km. Perfect for land-sailing - carrovelismo - but we just took it on in a 4wd for some pics. Stay out here too long and you'll end up as bleached white bones in the dust.
Our final night in the Andes was spent watching the sunset over Mercedario from the red rocky hills where the wilderness takes over from the town of Barreal. From here on, we head east to complete our loop via Córdoba and the Atlantic Coast.